Lupie Leyva has answered questions about immigration issues, taught people how to use email, and once even helped a person make an appointment to see a family member who was incarcerated. "I've worked in public libraries for 10 years," she says. "Nothing surprises me anymore."
None of those things are technically in her job description as senior librarian at the Robert Louis Stevenson Library in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East L.A. But Leyva feels that these tasks are part of her role as a community provider of trust—or what she calls confianza. "That is the thing that we as a system provide," she says. "People trust us to try to find the best information we can."
Information about healthcare reform is available at the front desk
A new initiative by the Los Angeles Public Library is using that sense of confianza to help Angelenos learn about and and sign up for the new healthcare system. Health Matters is a partnership with the California Endowment that trains librarians in all 73 branches to provide enrollment assistance for Covered California, the state's insurance provider under the Affordable Care Act. In addition, the libraries are offering workshops and programs on health issues and preventive care.
The library's new city librarian John F. Szabo came from Atlanta, where he focused on health issues, and knew that healthcare and libraries were a good mix. Many people already come to the library for health-related concerns, looking for books on how to eat more healthily, for example, or how to cope with diseases like diabetes. For many library users, this is the only place they have access to a computer or internet, so it's a natural place for enrollment, which must be done online. And, because each branch is customized to serve its neighborhood, the staff is familiar with specific cultural needs—offering bilingual services, for example.
"We are an information palace," says Melissa Potter, director of adult services for the LAPL. "People come in and have questions about everything. With something as big as the Affordable Care Act, we knew this would be an issue."
For many local residents the library is the only place they have access to a computer or to wifi
But the role also fits, because people have the sense that a library is a neutral space. Unlike a hospital or a government office, a library is perceived as a low-stress environment without an agenda, which makes it more comfortable for people seeking information about healthcare, an extremely personal topic. "Part of our professional ethic is that we help, we serve and we do not judge," says Leyva. "We very much value people's privacy."
One of the most important aspects of the library model is the fact that the 73 branches are geographically dispersed around the city. This, of course, makes a library accessible to nearly every Angeleno, but it also allows each branch to add additional programs specific to their region if they know their users have high rates of obesity, for example, or need better access to fresh food. It's part of each library's mission already, says Leyva. "We really try to help our specific community and we are very aware of our immediate demographic." For Leyva, one of the biggest issues is getting the word out to undocumented parents that their children will be covered under the act, and that they should get their kids set up with coverage even if they're not eligible themselves.
The community board of any library is filled with free information, including plenty of brochures on health services
This isn't the first time that service workers have collaborated with medical professionals on health issues. Hairdressers have been trained to encourage women to get mammograms and look for skin cancer, for example. But the idea of librarians being tapped for issues as complex as healthcare enrollment really shows how valuable these kinds of people are in a community. According to one study, 28 million Americans have already used public library computers to look for health information, mostly low-income individuals who are most likely to benefit from Obamacare.
Many of us take the anonymity and ease with which we can find answers online—which are not always completely trustworthy—for granted. Take away that tool, and the circle of real, trusted people we can reach out to with questions, for free, becomes very small—church leaders, teachers, city workers—each with their own set of biases. But librarians are information scientists; they're interested in facts. For many people, librarians play the role of a human internet. Librarians provide a safe place to ask questions and get answers—which, if you think about it, is exactly what our libraries should be.